Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language Paperback – Feb 17 2011
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Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.
Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
"Words and rules", as its title suggests, is a less ambitious and more technical book than "The Language Instinct" or "How the Mind Works". It is likely to produce less controversy. It is less than friendly for readers without background in linguistics. There are very few far-reaching conjectures - most of the stories Pinker recounts are solid, scientifically verified data.
However, the consequences which follow are disturbing and unusual. The seemingly trivial question of regular and irregular words in languages, and English irregular verbs in particular, has major repercussions for this other question Dr. Pinker had tackled earlier - how the mind works.
To try to sum it up: in language acquisition and language use, humans employ two systems: memory and structure, lexicon and grammar, words and rules. They are interdependent, but distinctly separate. Their separation in human minds is illustrated by numerous examples from children's speech mistakes, speech impediments in people with various brain injuries, and neurological data, obtained by more or less direct observation of brain activity. All languages depend heavily on words; you cannot use even Esperanto unless you have mastered its basic vocabulary.Read more ›
Hence, when I started reading 'Words and Rules' I had a slightly negative preconception to fight against. But I was surprised. 'Words and Rules' is both entertaining and insightful. It's discussion of the forms of past tense in English - both regular and irregular - gave me a lot to think about. It 'explained' some of those curiosities that I had wondered about for many years - 'slept' but not 'sleeped', and yet both 'learnt' and 'learned' are acceptable. Unfortunately I did become bogged down in the book as Mr Pinker uses more and more avenues of research to support his hypothesis that both words ('slept', 'learnt') and rules ('-ed' as in 'learned') are functional. Anf that rules may be modern inventions gradually displacing the much older irregular forms.
From a philosophical point of view this book did make me reflect on how academic research often comes up with two hypotheses and so often both are proved to be partially correct. Even when they seem to be mutually exclusive, such as the wave and particle nature of light. Is it a reflection on the power of the human mind and its ability to support its hypotheses even in the face of opposing hypotheses? If that were the case, Mr Pinker is presenting no case at all. A much more revealing document would be one that took either of the two theories - words or rules - and justified it in exclusion to the other.
Most recent customer reviews
Psychologist, linguist, and well-known author Steven Pinker illustrates the processes of human language through an extended discussion of regular and irregular verbs. Read morePublished on Feb. 20 2013 by John M. Ford
Yes, yes this is engaging and is interesting but only for the layman or shall I say monkey. It is useless for those who have taken even a single undergrad course in linguistics. Read morePublished on Jan. 9 2004 by Andas
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